Orange-pink cracks of light in the murky grey sky to the east contradict the weather forecast I saw the day before. This is good. If it lasts. The predicted headwind is present though. By 35km I’m cowering in a bus stop on a junction, 5km later when I spot an open café I’m wringing water out of my gloves. The forecast was correct. Never mind, need to bash out 315km today so neck a hot sweet coffee and back on the road and across field after field. Sky fades into the land, and everything dissolves into rain. The grey sky drains the land of colour, ahead of me looks like a slightly out of focus badly exposed photograph. I pull the peak of my cap down a little.
I pass a stone outline of France with a picture of a cyclist and then spot a picture of Jacques Anquetil on the side of the road. I look down and the Garmin says I’m riding on Cote Jacques Anquetil. Something to look up later as I’m too cold and wet to stop now to check it out. The road swoops down into the Seine Valley and the distinct shape of the hillside ahead is familiar from riding near this way last year.
I stop for another coffee and to warm up a bit. As I pay for my coffee the woman says something about it not being cycling weather. I have to concur. I ride a couple of hundred metres down the road and spot a bakery, I pull over to grab some food. I exit the bakery into rain. It’s hammering down. I run over the road to another bar. I order a hot chocolate and look at the clock on the wall. Almost five hours to ride 80km (and 30 minutes to ride the last 250 metres). This isn’t fast enough. I start to recalculate plans in case I don’t pick up the pace.
I climb in and out of a couple of small river valleys and wind and rain until I find myself following the Seine into a strong headwind. At least the rain has stopped. I spy a bus shelter and decide it’s time for some lunch and to have a look at the map and rejigger the day’s plans. Three hundred k’s is off the table for today. I’m well off schedule and a look at the forecast tells me the wind is going to get stronger. Chartres is 110km nearer than Blois (my planned stop for today) and the Formula 1 hotel has rooms. I hit ‘Book Now’ on my phone and dig my credit card out of my wallet. OK, sorted. This is a holiday after all. I’m not training for anything daft this year. 110km done, 100km to go.
I cross the Seine and a while later the Eure twice, then climb gently to vast plateau of fields a huge sky rushes by. Clouds race, showers pass, I mutter about the wind, on more than one occasion I am out of the saddle on the flat just to move forwards. Open fields and wide horizons and wind. A wind that whips and sideswipes me. The words “Fuck off wind!” are torn from my mouth and flung across a field. My leg knee grumbles. This is a fight I’m not going to win. Skylark song is buffeted about the sky. I unclip. Swing of water. Biscuit from my musette. I look behind me, a rainbow stretches across the horizon. Clip back in.
I find myself crossing the Eure again. The sun is shining. A can of iced tea in a bus shelter next to a bridge. Must be getting close now. Chartres is on the Eure isn’t it? Ten kilometres down the road and ‘Chartres’ appears on a signpost with a green bicycle. Spirits rise, as does my speed for a short while. I trace a line between a railway and the river. I stop and sit on the step of a Salle de Fete in the sunshine to eat a biscuit. A jazz piano trio start up inside. I stay for two songs and as I ride away I see a banner for that evening’s entertainment strung across the building above where I was sat. I must have caught rehearsals.
Garmin says straight ahead. Up a slight hill. Cyclepath signpost says right. Flat. I turn right onto the cyclepath to the outskirts of Chartres where the signposting gets vague, so I follow a kid on a BMX hoping he’s heading into town. The spires of the cathedral appear at the end of the road catching the evening sun. Quick check of the phone to find the hotel. I check in and collapse on the bed and consider how many dinners to have.
Once I’ve eaten two dinners from MacDonalds (both equally disappointing but I’m too tired to walk any further than the Maccy D’s next to the hotel) I look at the map and weather forecast to work out plan for next couple of days. After looking at a few options I decide that tomorrow I will ride as far as today’s intended destination, Blois. This means I can have a lie in and an easier day to recover a bit before continuing with the two planned 200km days to Geuret and then to Gagnac-sur- Cere. The thought of getting up early to knock out 300km into headwind all day doesn’t appeal. I book into the Formula 1 in Blois for the next evening and fall asleep.
Next morning I drink vending machine coffee and watch French cartoons. Seeing as I only need to ride 110km today I get another coffee and watch some more. I check what the weather is doing out of the window and watch a few more.
I ride back into town to find a bakery and take a look at the cathedral before zigzagging out of town trying to find my plotted route, heading south through the suburbs and into the grasslands. Another flat road, another unbroken horizon. I can see exactly where I’m heading and clearly there’ll be no respite from the wind. This goes on for quite a while. Hunker down. Pedal. Bored.
I tend to route myself via the inbetween places, often only seeing cars on the horizon, on the big roads, whilst I travel on smaller roads, crossing or running parallel to those faster strips of tarmac. Today I seem to have managed to route myself inbetween the inbetween places. For about 40km I see nothing but grass and wind turbines. I don’t think I change gear or need to steer for those 40km. The only ‘hill’ I encounter is when the road is raised over a railway line. I dream of a left turn. Not right, that would involve riding directly into the wind. Left means a tailwind. This is a futile desire. I know I’ll be riding into a cross-headwind all afternoon.
Eventually a junction to break the monotony. I turn onto a smaller road, a lane into a small hamlet. The sky breaks and I’m joined by my shadow. Clouds rush by. I pass through small villages, but no shops, no bars. I’m reliant upon cemetery taps for water and my musette for food. I start to see powerlines vanishing to a point on the horizon, an indication of something bigger than a village. I notice the sparkle of sunlight on car windows ahead and remember that my route runs tangentially to the A10 motorway before Blois. The motorway and powerlines converge where buildings break the horizon. I’m getting near.
Negotiating busy arterial roads and roundabouts on the outskirts of Blois is a bit of shock to the system after two days of very little traffic. I find myself sprinting across two lanes of a dual carriageway and a slip road to the relative safety of the gutter. I follow the blue signs to ‘Centre-Ville’ and ride to the middle of the bridge over the Loire. I stare down river for a moment and take a swig of water. I freewheel back off the bridge into the busy town and find a bar with a spare table in the sunshine for a coffee and a beer. Then it’s back up the hill to the F1 via a Carrefour Express to stock up on dinner and spare food for tomorrow.
I trundle through the cobbled streets and over the Loire before the city wakes up. Not even the bakeries are open. I follow the edge of the river for a while. From the Loire valley I rise and fall gently to the Cher valley and follow that river for a short distance before turning back into the hills. The clouds have broken as I climb back up onto the agricultural plains and I watch shadows scud across the fields. However the landscape is subtly shifting, less of the monocultures of the last two days, smaller fields, woodlands, roads that curve and undulate, a sky that appears smaller. Throughout the day the change gets greater, arable gives way to livestock, the hills get larger, the climbs longer.
Before the hills start in earnest I traverse a corner of La Brenne, the Land of a Thousand Lakes. Long straight roads lined with drainage ditches and trees, the lakes glimpsed through the leafless branches. The narrow water courses beside my wheels remind me of riding on Pevensey Levels, where these have many names; streams, ditches, sewers, guts, havens, fleets – I’m sure there are many French names for them here too. Clicks and splashes distract me as I ride but I’m too late to see what makes the noises when I glance sideways. The road is straight and quiet so it’s easy to watch the stream for a few metres, I see a splash but not what made it, but then am surprised to see a turtle on the side of a ditch. Do you find turtles in the wild in France? I make a mental note to Google this later. A mile or so later I see a signpost with a silhouette of a turtle in a red triangle. I guess you do.
Beyond the lakes the lanes narrow and start to twist and corkscrew and climb. I leave the flatlands behind me and start the climb toward the Millevaches. I seem to be going up just to come back down just to go up again just to once again come down. Half of the days climbing, a thousand metres, is gained in the last quarter of the distance. Every now and again I catch a view of the dark lumps of tomorrow’s hills, they look substantial. Ducking and diving between villages and steep sided river valleys I luck upon a small auberge next to the river Creuse. Two euros for a coffee and an Orangina. Geuret is on the signpost opposite, 25km.
I don’t follow all of the signs for Geuret as I found some shortcuts, but I end up on a cobbled farmtrack covered in mud and cowshit and remember there was a section I couldn’t Streetview and the satellite images hadn’t help much. It was 50/50 whether it would be rideable. On another day I would risk it but I’m 185km into day 3 and I’m tired and just want to get to the hotel. I turn around and follow those signposts for Geuret to find the hotel, a meal, and a beer.
I set off early but not too early. The sun is over the horizon and a patisserie is open on the outskirts of town. The climbing starts from the off, the town is built on a hillside. A long climb follows, like those in the foothills of mountains, a relatively easy gradient up through pine forest. There’s definitely a different feel to the landscape. A pattern emerges – climb, plateau, undulate, climb, plateau, undulate. Emptiness but for trees. It’s quiet but for the rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat of unseen woodpeckers.
It’s hazy today but warm. Tights, jacket, and gloves have been stuffed in the saddlebag. Shorts and knee warmers, jersey, gilet, mitts, and the gilet is unzipped for most of the day’s climbs. Having ridden through Anquetil’s bit of Normandy on the first day I now find myself in Raymond Poulidor’s bit of Limousin. A sign on the side of the road informs me I am riding on the Circuit of the Legends along one edge of Lac de Vassiviere. Something to look into later.
Somewhere after that there is a fast swooping descent, on the drops and grin like an idiot. Alongside a river, under a railway bridge, over the river, over the railway lines and stop in a town square and unpack lunch, penknife, and spork from my musette. I check the route, 85km, half way, sort of. However I’ve climbed as high as I’m going to climb for the day and the roads should start to tip down and follow a downward trajectory all the way to the Dordogne river now. This is a simplification but it makes the next 100 odd kilometres seem less of an effort.
Indeed there are definitely more downhills after lunch, still a lot of sharp ups between them, but I do seem to be utilizing the big ring more. I plotted as straight a line as possible between overnight stops to keep the overall distance low. What this means is lots of tiny roads between big roads. The big roads follow ridges and rivers, easy gradients tracing the contour lines of the map. The little ones disappear off into steep valleys inbetween. Back in the inbetween places. The pay-off for less distance is a lot more climbing, but another pay-off is no traffic, pretty roads, and amazing views. As I hit yet another ridge line I see the snow covered peaks of the Massif Central. This means I must be getting close to Argentat, which is good as 1) there’s a long descent to Argentat, 2) from there I have a flat road along the Dordogne to Gagnac-sur-Cere.
Indeed, I career down a steep twisty descent to a river that feeds into the Dordogne – I almost end up in the river when I go into the last corner to the narrow stone bridge over said river a tad too quick. One last hill is squeezed in before I get to the outskirts of Argentat, It’s early evening on Easter Monday and the town is quiet. I stop on the bridge and look down to see if the bar on the riverside is open. It is but I decide to crack on. Only 25km to go and I should just get it done. I stuff a hand into the musette to see what biscuits I might have left and find a bar of marzipan chocolate I forgot I had bought earlier in the day. Bonus.
This last bit I know, I’ve ridden it many times over the years. It’s longer than I remember, and the road surface has deteriorated a lot since I last came this way. Buzzards hunt in the fields squeezed between the hills and river. Mentally I tick of known landmarks – the bridge, the campsite, the left turn that heads up into the hills, the sign for the canoe place – until I pop out at the second last junction. Engage autopilot. One long straight uphill(ish) road past the supermarket, kink to the right, one long straight downhill(ish) road, first roundabout, second roundabout, round the back of the jam factory and I’m done. I settle down on the aero bars and pedal.